Becoming a professional musician is a goal for many people, but most people don’t know how to make that happen. Breaking into the music industry can be challenging, but this comprehensive guide will show you how to get started.
Getting Into the Music Business
Getting into the music industry is a dream for lots of people. The chance to professionally record music, to play in front of live audiences, and to be known for creativity and talent is an opportunity not to be taken lightly.
But the music industry itself can seem impenetrable. For all the success stories of artists and bands that have made it, there are many more stories of people who didn’t know how to begin to have a conversation about how to break into the industry.
Every artist or band has their own story about getting into the music industry. Many people who start with the dream of being a musician instead find that their passion for music corresponds to another facet of the industry.
If they like the technical side of music, they may become a producer, a mixer, or a sound engineer. If they have good attention to detail, they may get into music licensing. If they are a good communicator, they might find their calling is in music promotion or marketing.
Wherever you find yourself on that spectrum, the most important thing is to be clear about what you want to do and to use that clarity to guide you in the steps you have to take. The music industry is fiercely competitive, and it often rewards people who persevere for the long term.
Figuring Out Your Identity in Music
One of the first choices to make is to figure out what kind of performer you want to be or if you want to be a performer at all. This means deciding whether you want to be a solo artist, a member of a band, or part of a cover or tribute band. You may want to be a backup dancer, session musician, professional songwriter, lyricist or composer, orchestrator, DJ, or any other kind of music performer, whether in the public eye or one of the many people who make the magic happen behind the scenes.
Many people love music, but don’t want the spotlight and scrutiny of being a solo artist, so they are happy to be in the background (either metaphorically or literally) as a backing musician or a dancer. This will entail a separate trajectory from the people who want to be front and center, even though both groups of people love music.
While it is possible to switch career paths after you get signed or make some ground in the industry, it is also good to figure out where your skills and your passions are early on.
Independent vs. Record Label
Perhaps the next decision you will have to make for yourself is whether you want to get into the music business by yourself as an independent musician or you want to work with a major record label.
This is where being able to specifically identify your genre of music comes into play. Pop music, for instance, is strongly run by labels (covering everything from how an artist looks to the labels paying for songwriters), so cutting it as an independent musician in the pop music scene might be a challenge.
Other genres, like folk or heavy metal, are more conducive to going it alone or having minimal oversight from a label. For certain non-performing jobs in the music industry, it might be necessary to have the (financial) backing of a music label.
Connections & Networking in the Music Industry
Making connections and networking with other professionals is one of the best things you can do to get your foot in the door of the music business. Thanks to social media and online channels, this has become much easier to do than it used to be. However, there is still a great deal of value in making face-to-face connections.
You can do this by attending music events and festivals in your area or traveling to shows and expos in larger, destination cities. Some regions and market areas are better for this than others, which is why places like New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, Detroit, and Los Angeles are household names for people looking to break into respective genres and music scenes.
Getting to know venue owners, event organizers, and even artists themselves is a very effective way of pitching your own gigs and getting your name and face out in front of more people. For example, if you want to produce music, you might look for opportunities to spend time in a recording studio as a shadow or an assistant as a way to learn, get experience, and make yourself known to more people in the industry.
Preparing for Rejection
Unless you are very lucky, getting into music takes a lot of time. You might have to put up with a lot of dead ends and cancellations. You will likely make a lot of mistakes along the way. But every opportunity you get should help you develop the patience, talent, instincts, and even the personality that the music industry needs.
This is because the music industry is competitive, perhaps unlike anything outside of the overall entertainment business. Rejection is an inevitable fact of life for everyone, from an aspiring solo artist to a person who wants a job as a sound technician.
But everyone in the business who has faced rejection has learned from it and kept trying. Nobody in music achieved their dream without a string of disappointments along the way. For many people, this means having another job (or even multiple jobs) to support themselves while they work on their music careers.
Social Media & Your Online Presence
An essential part of breaking into today’s music scene is to have an online presence. Being social media savvy boosts your visibility and shows record labels and executives that there’s a market for your music.
Rolling Stone magazine argued as recently as 2020 that social media is “the music industry’s future.” Now, even a smartphone can record audio and cut good video, so you could even already have a few music videos on a YouTube or a TikTok channel ready to show someone. This will also suggest that you know a thing or two about managing your brand, and that you’re not going to wait around for someone to discover you.
Another advantage of managing your own social media profiles is that you become your own public relations agent. Advocating for yourself, especially in the early days of your music career, is what gets your name in front of fans and industry people.
Getting into the music industry these days is all about building a brand, and who better to build your brand than you? If you take on the extra work of promoting yourself, you control the message and the image those fans and industry people will see.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
The rise of social media, and its importance to the music business, speaks to how much the business has changed from even 10 or 15 years ago and the degree to which the whole industry is rapidly changing now. Gone are the days when artists would sign with a record label and release an album full of music. Now, you record individual songs to stream on playlists, and some artists don’t even bother with digital downloads anymore.
While many fundamentals of breaking into the music industry haven’t changed, some of the fundamentals of the industry itself has changed. Keep an eye on what trends people are talking about, and try to stay current or even ahead of the curve.
Performing & Finding a Mentor in the Music Industry
For all the connections you can make and social media followers you can get, there’s nothing like performing as much as you can. Broadening your reach and getting your music in front of as many people as possible is the best thing you can do for yourself, so become your own booking agent and accept as many gigs as you can — live festivals, concerts, community events, tribute shows, fairs, outdoor events, bars, and coffee houses — even if this has to disrupt other parts of your life.
You might even get bookings for private events (like weddings) and company retreats. No audience is too small. The more you’re out there, the better your chances are for bigger gigs down the road.
Everybody has their own story about how they made it in the music business, and most people want to share that story with someone they feel will benefit from it. Finding a mentor is one of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of the industry. They have a unique perspective, good connections, and the experience of knowing what to do and what not to do.
Nobody makes it in the music business without a lot of help. Kanye West, for example, learned under Jay-Z before becoming a cultural icon on his own.
Some music schools offer mentorship programs to their students, partnering you with someone who will both complement and challenge you. If you’re not in school, ask your connections and your peers if there is someone you can learn from. Social media is another great way of following an industry veteran.
Don’t Give Up
The idea of being dedicated to your music may sound cliché, but it is worth repeating. You have to love what you do even when it frustrates you, even when it seems like it may not be working out, and even when it seems like there is no future in becoming a professional musician.
If you find yourself playing cover songs in an empty bar, you still have to give it the consistency and commitment you would give to playing your own material in front of a packed stadium. If the only work you can find is writing jingles for commercials, stick with it until you build enough of a portfolio so you can confidently apply for a job with a larger production company.
The point is that the path to success in the music business is not a clear, straight line. Regardless of how much it twists and turns, you have to remain committed to it. Eventually, that persistence will take you to the right people in the right places at the right times.
Understanding the Music Business
Here are a couple other things to think about as you work on breaking into the music business:
- Take the “business” part seriously and literally. When someone offers you a contract, make sure you understand what you are being asked to sign. Do some research or hire an agent or a lawyer to make sure you are not being taken advantage of.
- Don’t blow your first advance or your first royalty check. Keep a budget of what you’re making and what you’re spending.
The music business can be unforgivingly fickle for newcomers, and many up-and-comers have spent money faster than they’ve been able to make it. Living frugally in the short term means living comfortably in the long term.
The Power of Consistency
Make music consistently. There are countless other bands and artists wanting to do exactly what you’re doing — make it in the music business — and if you don’t keep people’s attention, one of those other acts will take your spot. Use social media to your advantage to engage with your fans even when you don’t have anything ready. Remember that one of your responsibilities as a professional musician will be to always create new music.
Breaking into the music industry can alternate between a dream and a nightmare. But if you approach it smartly, becoming a professional musician can be a very achievable goal.
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